CINCINNATI — Christian Pulisic had heard the comments. Tim Weah and Gregg Berhalter had, too. Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa had opened his mouth earlier this week. The words that came out weren't particularly inflammatory. But many within the U.S. men's national team interpreted them as disrespect.
“Mexico has been that mirror in which [the United States] want to see themselves," Ochoa said. "What they want to copy.”
So on Thursday, some 24 hours before the U.S. and Mexico went to battle, Pulisic had an idea. A cheeky idea. "Just an idea that came to my head," he said with a grin.
Sometime over those 24 hours, somebody in the U.S. camp went to work, marker on undershirt.
"MAN IN THE MIRROR," they scrawled.
And they handed Pulisic the latest weapon of sh*thousery in a rivalry full of it.
Pulisic beat Mexico with a knifing header here on Friday night. As he ran toward cameras, as beer flew, as thousands of American fans bounced, Pulisic brought two fingers to his ears. Then he tugged up his jersey. He revealed the undershirt. And, without saying a single word, he fired back.
After the game, Pulisic attempted to downplay the shirt. "I'm [not] trying to cause controversy," he said softly.
Weah, though, wouldn't let him back away from it.
"It's just to send a message, you know?" said Weah, who said he'd taken an idea for shirts to the USMNT's kit guys.
"I think it's a new era now," Weah continued. "Before the game, Mexico was talking a lot of smack. And beating them just shuts them up."
The USMNT felt disrespected
Ochoa's words had filtered through the U.S. team this week. They had, in some ways, been taken out of context. Ochoa was speaking about not only men's national teams, but also leagues and soccer ecosystems. And at least in part, he was correct. For decades, the U.S. program trailed Mexico and played catch-up. Its top clubs still lag behind those in Liga MX.
But this USMNT had created its own context over the summer. First in Denver, then in Vegas. It braved flying beer cans and controversies to conquer Mexico in the Nations League final. It repeated the feat in the Gold Cup two months later. Players felt they had earned Mexico's respect. They felt they'd inaugurated a new era.
And yet they, the victors, were supposedly still the ones looking in Mexico's mirror?
“When you hear things coming out from their camp, that we want to be them, we're looking at some mirror that's Mexico, and want to see ourselves or something like that — it shows that we have a long way to go to get the respect of Mexico," Berhalter, the U.S. head coach, said Thursday. "And the two victories in the summer I guess didn't do a lot to get that."
So they set out to earn it on the field, again.
They also planned to talk some smack of their own once they had.
The Man in the Mirror
It wasn't overt smack. It was subtle. Even non-soccer staffers got in on the act. They'd heard Ochoa's comments. They knew players had. One staffer had an idea of their own: To queue up Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," and boom it to the entire stadium if and when the U.S. won.
Sure enough, shortly after the final whistle, it became the soundtrack to a party.
The team's social media crew, quoting the Michael Jackson song, got in on the act.
if you wanna make the world a better place,
take a look at yourself then make the change... pic.twitter.com/ST7fa1e3hr
— U.S. Soccer MNT (@USMNT) November 13, 2021
The game operations department, according to U.S. Soccer officials, had no idea that Pulisic, Weah and other players had also been scheming. Few people outside the locker room, if any, were aware of Pulisic's shirt. For hours on Friday night, it was buried underneath multiple layers, concealed by a bulky warmup jacket, shielding the torso of a man who'd played just 23 minutes of competitive soccer over the past two months.
Having just recovered from injury, Pulisic knew that 23 more minutes would be all he'd get, at most, to impact this pivotal match. He knew his chance to bring his "idea" to the world would be fleeting.
But he took it. His plans fell wonderfully into place. There was little need to say much more.
"I think you guys know the message," he said when asked about the man in the mirror. "There's no need to speak on it too much."
"I think we've earned respect the last couple times we've played them," he said of Mexico. "They understand what we're about, we understand what they're about. That's what makes a great rivalry."